Psychiatric Survivor Activism


The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with David Oaks

EM: You are a psychiatric survivor human rights activist. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means?

DO: I am a proud psychiatric survivor. After encountering overwhelming emotional problems in college, about a dozen psychiatrists labeled me psychotic, schizophrenic, bi-polar, depressed, etc. Inside psychiatric institutions, including twice in a Harvard teaching-facility, McLean Hospital, I survived solitary confinement, involuntary psychiatric drug injections, weeks deprived of my liberty, and other degradations.

While in solitary once, I recall symbolically punching the impenetrable steel screen over the only window, and vowing silently that when I got out I would resist this abusive system. Harvard’s volunteer program, Phillips Brooks House, placed me as an intern with one of the early activist groups, Mental Patients Liberation Front. This became my career, and I learned all I could about community organizing, starting with an intensive training by the group ACORN.

There have been some amazing stories of psychiatric survivors organizing in the past, such as the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society in the UK in 1848. The current wave of the little-known but global psychiatric survivor organizing began in the late 1960’s. I have had the honor of twice working with the group We Shall Overcome in Norway, which started in 1969 and is still going strong!

EM: You are the former executive director of MindFreedom International. What are that organization’s intentions and efforts?

DO: The word “revolution” is in the mission statement for MindFreedom International. For 25 years I had the unique pleasure of working full time in the MFI office in Eugene, Oregon. Not to criticize the vast majority of groups seeking mental health reform, because I have seen many of them do great work, but MFI is one of the few totally independent nonprofits in our field. Imagine almost all the groups in the environmental movement getting most of their money from the petrochemical industry and government. The eco movement would be very weak if they relied on funding from the entities they seek to change. Yet, this describes mental health advocacy today.

There are very few groups like MFI that rely mainly on individual donations and grants from good foundations. One of the largest family groups in mental health had a policy to keep their funding secret. The investigative magazine Mother Jones won an award by proving that this nonprofit received millions from drug companies. A US Senate investigation in 2009 revealed that a majority of their revenue covertly came from the pill industry. MFI is effective despite having to raise every dime from people who are often low-income.

EM: You’ve worked as a community organizer. What do you see as the relationship between community organizing and mental health reform?

DO: My four decades of activism have produced a lesson that can be summed up in four words: “We are all nuts!” Seriously, none of us has a grip on reality. For example, we humans are very divided and individualistic. Community organizing is like providing a wheelchair for a disabled, fragmented society so that we can become a more whole, healed world.

Personally, I have used many alternative, humane approaches for my recovery from what psychiatry called “psychosis.” For example, I have used fasting vision quests in the wilderness, decades of meditation, healthy eating, and much more. In 2012 I had a major accident that resulted in a lot of problems, including recurring nightmares that could accurately be diagnosed as “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Since then, I regularly see a great talk therapist.

But among my many options for resilience, I have found that the cliché that friendship is the best medicine, rings true. Successful community organizing creates close peer bonds between us all in very complex ways, resulting in heightened mental and emotional wellbeing. We may all be nuts, but with enough support we can choose what kind of nuts we are: positively creative nuts, or destructive bigoted nuts.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?

DO: Psychiatry generally endorses a model they call “biopsychosocial.” However, based on my close conversations with thousands of psychiatry’s clients, it appears that the mental health profession has mainly focused on the first three letters of that long word: bio. The approach that people use for recovery changes from person to person. But the decision about what is effective is part of the healing process, because our empowerment is inherent to our wellbeing.

We can easily get hung up in the fight between taking psychiatric drugs, and hating psychiatric drugs, especially when it comes to children. But we need far more than a civil war inside the mental health profession. We really need a revolution! I have tried to capture the main goal of our movement with the phrase, “Voices for Choices!” Unfortunately, the mental health system seems to mainly provide what I call the “three F’s of the mind”: Force, Fraud, and Fear. I received force, such as injections and lock ups. Rampant in this field is fraud, mainly by unscientifically claiming that our problems are mainly due to chemical imbalances and genetics. Finally, the most pervasive oppression is the fear that there is only one main approach to severe problems: prescriptions.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

DO: I would ask what they have found most supportive? I would then listen, and allow them to have a full range of feelings. People know what works. With loving support they can figure out what they need. Some loved ones have found refuge with spirituality. Others have used art and creativity for their strength. Yes, some have found temporary help with prescribed psychiatric medications, and even though I quit those back in 1977, I try to be respectful of people when they choose an approach I avoid.

We must recognize the universality of extreme mental problems. Psychiatric disorders are not about the 10% or the 20%. One hundred percent of all of us, from womb to tomb, 24/7, have overwhelming mental and emotional distress. I’m not just being funny when I say that the worst of this distress is what is commonly and incorrectly called “normality,” such as the way we collectively are dodging our responsibility to address the climate catastrophe.

For most of my life I’ve called for global, nonviolent revolution. A good revolution would help our mental and emotional wellbeing. We might not win. But I’m sure we could try. What would that look like?


Raised working class, David W. Oaks attended Harvard, experienced five psychiatric lock-ups, and graduated anyway in 1977. This leader in the psychiatric survivors movement now lives in Oregon with his wife Debra.

For more information, see David’s blog:

Mad In America reposts his blog:

David is also on Facebook:

David can be followed at Twitter: @davidwoaks

A chapter by David titled “The Moral Imperative for Dialogue with Organizations of Survivors of Coerced Psychiatric Human Rights Violations,” was included in a 2011 book about involuntary psychiatry by the World Psychiatric Association, and is available for free here

A popular essay by David about mental health and language can be found here

To contact David on LinkedIn:

This post was previously published on Psychology Today.


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